Q: One of my dogs goes around licking the other dogs’ empty bowls for several minutes after eating. He also likes to lick one of our area rugs and sometimes the sofa upholstery. My other dog has a foot fetish: She loves to lick my feet. What’s going on with them?
A: Compulsive licking sounds like it should be an underlying behavioral problem, doesn’t it? That’s certainly a possibility, but it can also be a sign of a physical problem.
My colleague Gary Landsberg, a veterinary behaviorist, says a large proportion of these environmental licking behaviors are due to underlying health issues that cause gastrointestinal upset. Among the conditions that might be causing a dog to feel nauseated are adrenal disorders, inflammatory bowel disease, intestinal lymphosarcoma and liver disease.
Some dogs lick because they have dental or other mouth pain. Excessive licking can also be a sign of hunger – it’s called an appetitive behavior. On the behavior side of things, excessive licking might signal anxiety or some type of conflict. Obviously, a veterinary exam can be a good idea. Consider filming the behavior so your veterinarian can see what’s going on.
“A colleague did a study a couple of years ago and found that many dogs were improved when gastrointestinal signs were treated,” Landsberg says. “However, licking can arise in situations of anxiety and conflict, can be a reinforced behavior and can be a compulsive disorder. Therefore, look for behavioral, but rule out gastrointestinal or medical first.”
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and Kim Campbell Thornton, author of many pet-care books.